This Mariners’ rebuild so far has played better in theory, in Jerry Dipoto’s vivid accounts of its potential, and in daydreams of the hoped-for payoff at an indistinct point in the future, than it has in reality.
But on Thursday, there was real, live tangible evidence of where this could lead (and even more evidence of how far there’s still to go).
Unleashed together at T-Mobile Park were two of the stalwarts of the rebuild, Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, both making MLB debuts and at least temporarily lifting hearts at T-Mobile Park.
It came at a time of renewed grumbling about the Mariners’ lackluster play after a surprisingly strong start to the season. The discontent reached a crescendo as the game proceeded, despite the festive attitude with which it began.
The night marked the long-awaited arrival of two players who not only can be impact players in Seattle but need to be for this whole thing to work.
Because this was the real world and not a fairy tale, Kelenic’s first swing as a major-leaguer from the leadoff spot didn’t produce a home run, but rather a well-struck foul drive that right fielder Josh Naylor snared as he tumbled into the stands. Kelenic struck out in his next at-bat against a barrage of curves and changeups from Cleveland starter Zach Plesac, then grounded out sharply to first base, and flew out to center.
And Gilbert, after a flawless eight-pitch first inning, was touched for two runs in the second, including a long home run by Franmil Reyes. The third inning yielded another two-run homer, this one by All-Star Jose Ramirez. Gilbert lasted four innings, giving up five hits and four runs while striking out five and not walking any.
The final ledger: an 0-fer for Kelenic and an “L” for Gilbert, not quite how it was scripted by fans ravenous for a positive sign.
Nor did Kelenic’s insertion at the top of the order lead to the hoped-for offensive boost by osmosis. The Mariners were held hitless through seven innings by Plesac before J.P. Crawford singled in the eighth, in their first home game since being no hit by Baltimore’s John Means. For the second straight game, they managed just two hits (one of them an upper-deck homer by Dylan Moore) and lost, 4-2, stranding the bases loaded (via walks) in the ninth.
Call it a buzzkill, if you like (and you’d be accurate). Call it a raging anticlimax (another bull’s-eye) on a night that began with such tremendous anticipation. But the Mariners are playing the long game here (much too long, I can hear you screaming) and these two are the first major pieces of the rebuild to make their arrival.
Their impact will play out over the long haul, as nice as a storybook start would have been. There’s no guarantee it will happen (see Ackley, Dustin and Zunino, Mike, and … well, the list is too long for this news hole), but Dipoto sees Kelenic as a virtual sure thing.
“Jared Kelenic is going to be a good hitter in this league,’’ he said before Thursday’s game. “I hope that starts today. But minimally I know that to be true. His process and his talent is just too good. He’s done what we asked him to do at every step, so that he’s being rewarded with the best thing we can give him, which is an opportunity in the big leagues to show it.
“There’s never any more excitement than with the anticipation of the arrival of talented young players like these,’’ said Dipoto, who called their ascension, “a celebration of process for our organization.”
He added, “I don’t want to put too much pressure on the day itself. I think there’s some symbolism in promoting both guys together, and we’re starting a homestand; it represents something fresh and new.”
For an organization that over the years have been mired with far too much that is stale and old, that is something to be seized upon. Only a handful of midseason call-ups in team history have produced this kind of buzz — Felix, A-Rod, maybe Dustin Ackley — and this time, it extended far beyond Seattle.
For one thing, there is now such a cottage industry in chronicling minor-leaguers that Kelenic, in particular, already has a cult following among the prospect cognoscenti.
Add in the angle of Mets’ fans massive angst over letting Kelenic get away in the much-lamented Robinson Cano trade, and the widespread notoriety of former president Kevin Mather’s insinuation of service-time manipulation with Kelenic, and you had an unveiling the entire baseball world was watching closely. Until it morphed into a Plesac no-hitter watch.
Dipoto talked Thursday of the “waves” of prospects that he envisions breaking into the major leagues at regular intervals. The first wave had been the likes of J.P. Crawford, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield, Evan White and Kyle Lewis.
That has proceeded in fits and starts. It has led to some warranted skepticism about the ultimate success of the rebuild as it hits Year Three, even though Dipoto said Thursday, “We think it’s going well, and we think it’s going rather quickly.”
The next wave is expected to include, among others, the electric stylings of Julio Rodriguez. But when it comes to waves, this was a two-man tidal, stirring up a tsunami of expectations.
“Hopefully those guys will add a little excitement, certainly around the ballpark and around our ballclub but more importantly, help us win games,’’ Mariners manager Scott Servais said before the game. “That’s what it’s about. I know everybody around town that follows our ballclub is excited to see both these young prospects, but I’m excited because they’re going to help us win a few more games, be a little bit better on the field, and we can watch their growth along the way.”
Kelenic brings a tangible swagger that won’t be muted by a few early outs. Speaking before the game, he was most thrilled by the fact that much of his family had made it out from Wisconsin for the game. That list that included his parents, sister and brother, both grandmothers and a grandfather, an uncle and his best friend from high school.
“You know, I’m pretty mellow right now,’’ he said three-and-a-half hours before game time. “I’m really trying to take this as just another game, because it is; it’s the same game. I think it’ll hit me once I get out there and the fans start rolling in, and I see my family and the lights turn on.”
Asked how many times and how many different ways he’s envisioned his major-league debut, Kelenic said, “I don’t think there’s a number big enough to think about this day. … I am fully committed to taking in every second of this because I know it’ll never happen again. And to be able to share it with the people that got me here is pretty special.”
It was the memory of a lifetime for Kelenic and Gilbert. For everyone else, it was a letdown that the Mariners hope proves to be fleeting.